Vintage rodders tear up the sand at iconic Pendine

| 18 Sep 2013

Old cars being driven flat out at an historic motor racing venue where the idea is to see just how fast they are in terms of top speed has to be a fine way to spend a weekend. That is exactly what Neil Fretwell of the Vintage Hot Rod Association arranged with the local council at Pendine Sands in South Wales on 7 September.

The idea was to run easterly along the beach with the start near the Museum of Speed that is built on the edge of the sands. The course allowed for a mile to build up speed and then a timed quarter mile followed by enough firm sand to allow for slowing down.

Many of the 82 competitors found that the wet sand did not invite fierce acceleration or a sudden lift of the throttle, the result was described by many as ‘interesting’.

These days, 174mph may not sound fast to C&SC readers, but when Malcolm Campbell set a new World Land Speed record at 174.22mph in February 1927 on Pendine Sands it was a very brave achievement.

Campbell had been in a dramatic contest with Welshman JG Parry-Thomas for the record with each driver challenging the other over a period of four years. Parry-Thomas returned to the sands just a month after Campbell set his record, driving the aero-engined ‘Babs’, tragically he was killed when the car overturned at Pendine whilst travelling at over 170 mph.

‘Babs’ was buried in the dunes after the accident but local engineering lecturer Owen Wyn Owen disinterred the car in 1969 and painstakingly rebuilt it. ‘Babs’ can now be seeni the Museum of Speed at Pendine. Later in 1927 there was one further attempt at the World record on the sands, Italian Giulio Foresti in his Djelmo Special, he also crashed spectacularly but was not badly injured.

The VHRA was only recently formed with the idea of giving owners of pre 1949 hot rods and customs an interesting diversity of places to run their cars. We are talking hot rods and not ‘street rods’, which are a totally different kind of car – machined aluminium billet parts with outrageous paint finishes and little to connect them with the social roots of traditional rodders.

For the past 60 years it has been possible to drive on the beach at Pendine at low tide on weekends, during the week it is part of a military firing range! Where one can drive is quite restricted and no competitive motorsport events have been allowed despite enthusiastic pleas from many clubs so this event was something of a coup for the VHRA.

There were plenty of cars with the classic Ford four-cylinder engine ranging from Neil Tuckett’s wonderful ‘T’ engined 1911 Golden Ford (above) that raced on Saltburn Sands (76.87mph top speed on Pendine) through various Model As to early 1930s Model Bs.

Most impressive was Phill Wells’ 1925 Ford ‘T’ tourer with a model A engine (below) that ran at 77.69mph, only the fact that he was then holidaying in the car before driving back to Suffolk stopped him trying even harder on his final run.

Paul Beamish’s 1934 Ford three-window coupe (main image) looked very period ‘dry lakes’ but frustrated him by only running 99.25mph.

The faster cars were running flathead Ford V8s. Fastest speed of the day was captured by Neil Bennett in his V8 powered 1935 Batten Special at 114.56mph, mighty impressive, and as he said afterwards ‘not that easy’.

After their first runs down the beach many drivers said that while waiting at the far end of the course, with the dunes on one side and the retreating tide on the other, they felt the historic nature of the venue and understood the magnitude of what Campbell and Parry-Thomas had achieved. Looking toward the sea I was reminded of Jack Vetriano’s fine painting of Campbell prior to his record run.

There were 82 competitors, each was able to get in three runs before everybody worked quickly to clear the beach as the incoming sea erased all traces of a fascinating days motor racing. What was interesting was how well the wet sand stood up to almost 250 runs and well the cars stood up to flat out running.

This was comparatively low cost motor racing with a lot of style from the cars, the competitors and the enthusiastic spectators, the clothes were as period as the cars. Brilliant!

Words and pictures: Peter Stevens

More pictures

1932 Ford Model B Tourer of Chris Rawlins 

Kelvin Helsdown, car 105 a supercharged and super low V8 flathead engine Ford ‘T’ at the start, 106.99mph was fast 

The pits at Pendine, Chris Smith’s 1932 Ford Model ‘B’

Marco Warren’s 1934 Ford Coupe with Ford V8 flat head power returs to the pits

Car 44, Gary McCormack’s Ford ‘B’ roadster are watched by a couple and their dogs